With the release of budget proposals from the Washington state Legislature, much is made of the fact that these proposals include significant additional funding for K-12 education. This additional funding has come in response to the state Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary case that Washington state has failed to amply fund basic education for every child in the state, as required by the state constitution. As a result of the court’s decision, there is general bipartisan agreement that more education funding is legally mandated. Education advocates across the state are celebrating these developments, and it is easy to believe that our schools will soon be adequately funded.
The realities, however, are not so clear, and not necessarily a boon for the Mercer Island School District, which relies on a combination of state, federal and local dollars. Though no one can be certain how the final budget will be negotiated, it is very likely that the Mercer Island School District will see at best a slight increase in funding for the 2013-14 school year, and it is quite possible that combined funding (state plus local) will actually decrease during the next biennium.
How can this be possible? There are several factors at play, but the most significant issue is that increased state funding may come at the cost of reduced local levy capacity (i.e. lowering the amount of funding that Mercer Island voters can authorize). Currently, the Senate budget contemplates a 1 percent reduction in the local levy lid each year from 2015 through 2018. This equates to approximately $330,000 per year in local funding that would be lost. In addition, the Senate budget proposes reducing the levy base used to calculate local levy authority, which would translate to an additional $435,000 less in local funding for the 2013-14 school year.
These two specific provisions highlight a fundamental tension that will continue to play out going forward: What and how much should be funded by the state versus local school districts. One of the principles underlying McCleary is that local funding currently constitutes a disproportionately high percentage of total school funding. Consequently, to the extent that the state eventually comes into compliance with its constitutional duty, there will likely be a parallel movement to reform the local levy system, including reducing levy capacity for all school districts and eliminating discrepancies in the levy lid percentage as between districts. Because Mercer Island’s current levy lid percentage is higher than average, our reduction in levy capacity could be greater than most, and the net impact on our combined school funding (state plus local) remains uncertain.
How should we respond? I encourage those of you who believe excellent schools are essential to the quality of life on this Island to contact our legislators and advocate for a budget that adequately funds basic education without adversely impacting our local schools. In addition, we are fortunate to live in a community with an active schools foundation. Please support the Mercer Island Schools Foundation in its efforts to ensure educational excellence regardless of the outcome in Olympia.
Jackie Brown is the co-VP of Legislation and Advocacy, Mercer Island PTA Council, and the co-president of the Mercer Island Schools Foundation.